Coronavirus: ECE operators nervous about opening under level 3

Barely half of all early childhood education (ECE) centres are expected to open their doors when the country enters pandemic alert level three this week.

From Tuesday, on-site school and daycare will resume. Attendance is optional for both, with parents encouraged to send their kids only if it's absolutely necessary - and to keep them home if possible. 

The Early Childhood Council surveyed members and found 55 percent will open their doors. A third - 33 percent - will not, and the remaining 12 percent aren't sure yet. 

"It's actually a little bit better than what we thought it might be, but we're also aware that the number of children returning to those centres is quite small," CEO Peter Reynolds told Newshub.

The operators of three-quarters of all ECE centres are nervous or concerned about reopening - including many that are - despite 83 percent saying they've had adequate information provided by the Ministries of Health and Education.

Reynolds said it is a hard decision to make.

"There is increasing evidence that young children can not only contract COVID-19, but they can also be asymptomatic carriers - which means they may not have any symptoms whatsoever, and there's no way of testing for that. 

"We want to be able to open... but at the same time we want it to be safe - as safe as possible for those children, and safe for our staff."

There remains concern about how ECE centres will operate safely, with toddlers unlikely to heed social distancing norms. Kids are expected to be cared for in groups of 10, minimising contact with other 'bubbles', and have the same teachers every day. 

"Our concern all the way along is that the rationale behind reopening centres under level 3 is not as strong as it could be. There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered about the justification for reopening at this time, and also the structure and process around looking after children."

He said parents too will need to check with their daycare providers about protocols around dropping kids off.

"Our members have been in close touch with parents throughout lockdown, providing assurance around cleaning and sanitisation, and the systems they'll use to keep children safe.

"Opening with low numbers gives centres the chance to embed their new ways of operating before level 2."

An ECE operator told Newshub last week if she had toddlers, they wouldn't be going back just yet. 

"Absolutely not. I would not be gambling with my children's lives. Nope," said Maria Johnson, owner of Little Schools. "Not until the Government said there was no risk, and they're not saying no risk. To me, low-risk is too vulnerable."

She said of 220 parents who have kids at Little Schools, only 12 had been in touch to say their children would be returning under level 3.

Even when the country gets to level 2, Reynolds says it won't be like before.

"We don't know what alert level 2 is going to look like... but clearly we're not going to be returning to the old normal. We're going to be returning to a new normal, and we have to work with that. But hopefully we can keep things in perspective and keep things at a practical level." 

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said on Tuesday community transmission is so low "the likelihood of someone with COVID-19 going through the school gate in the first place is very, very low". He's also downplayed the risk of a teacher catching the disease, saying children and teenagers "don't tend to pass the virus on to adults".

While the virus is more deadly to older people, there are sporadic reported cases of deaths in children. New Zealand's teaching force, particularly in schools, is skewed older.

Education services resume on April 29.